Attorney General leads charge to expand language access for crucial weather alerts

July 24, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Attorney General Letitia James is leading a coalition of 16 attorneys general and New York City to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand language access for Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs), the critical government alerts sent to cell phones during severe weather emergencies.

The coalition’s proposal seeks to overcome the limitation of FCC’s current plan, which uses machine translation for WEAs into 13 languages. Instead, the coalition requests the adoption of human translations and an expansion of available languages to at least 25.

“In just the last few weeks, New Yorkers have been hammered by violent storms, flash flooding, and extreme heat, and receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts during these emergencies can be the difference between life and death,” Attorney General James said.

“The next severe weather event is a matter of when, not if. It is critical that this potentially lifesaving information be transmitted to the millions of New Yorkers — and Americans nationwide — who are not proficient in English,” James continued. “I applaud the steps FCC has taken thus far and urge them to expand language access even further to ensure no one is left behind.”

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The FCC’s proposal to use machine translation applications has been criticized due to reliability issues. A recent study by UCLA and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center found that the accuracy rate of machine translations from English varied widely for different languages — from 94% accuracy to as low as 55% accuracy.

The coalition suggests the use of alert templates for various emergency situations, created by human translators and pre-installed on cell phones, to avoid errors. Additionally, they urge the FCC to increase the number of supported languages to all those spoken by at least 300,000 people in the U.S. over five years old — a total of more than 25 non-English languages.

The comment letter is part of the Attorney General’s ongoing effort to increase language accessibility for WEAs. In March 2022, citing the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Ida in New York City, which disproportionately affected immigrants with limited English proficiency, Attorney General James urged the National Weather Service (NWS) to expand language accessibility.

Joining Attorney General James in this endeavor are the attorneys general of Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and the City of New York.


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